Same evidence, three verdicts
Hit-man trials dismay, dishearten attorneys

Friday, October 16, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The first time they took the murder case to court, prosecutors drew a "road map" leading to the killers of Maher Khrais and Ziad Khreis. If the map was followed, they said, it would guide three separate juries to the same suspects and the same verdicts.

The jurors, however, chose a path of their own. They freed one suspect, put another in prison and sent a third to court today to face a possible death sentence.

"There is something wrong here," said Nidal Khrais, the brother of the victims. "I don't understand how this can be."

The attorneys are equally amazed that the juries could hear so much of the same evidence and yet reach such different conclusions. Because the charges against the three original defendants were so similar, the case has raised questions for some about the logic of the verdicts and the fairness of the death penalty.

Those issues will likely come up again today when the attorneys for defendant Ahmad Fawzi Issa ask a Hamilton County judge to spare their client's life.

Mr. Issa was convicted last month of setting up the Nov. 22 murders of the two Jordanian brothers, who were shot to death in the parking lot of Mr. Khrais' Westwood convenience store.

After hearing testimony that accused Mr. Issa of hiring the hit man and providing the gun, his jury recommended a death sentence. Suspects Linda Khriss and Andre Miles fared better.

Mrs. Khriss, the wife of Mr. Khrais and the accused mastermind of the murder plot, was exonerated of all charges. Mr. Miles, the man who actually shot the brothers, was convicted of aggravated murder but was not given a death sentence.

Mr. Issa's attorney said something is wrong when the system spares a cold-blooded killer and condemns a man who didn't even pull the trigger.

"There is no even-handedness in the application of the death penalty," said Elizabeth Agar, one of Mr. Issa's lawyers. "Neither one of the other principle (defendants) is going to be punished in this fashion."

While the disparity is unusual, it is not unprecedented in conspiracy cases. Legal observers say murder-for-hire schemes require jurors to sift through complex evidence that sometimes implicates one defendant more than another.

And because each defendant is entitled to his own trial, the results can be influenced by everything from the abilities of the attorneys to the personalities of the jurors.

"Two juries may see it two different ways," said Christo Lassiter, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati. "Each case is not relevant to the others in terms of judicial proceedings, although it certainly strikes me as inconsistent and lacking in justice." Prosecutor Joseph Deters said he doesn't think the system is arbitrarily punishing Mr. Issa over the others.

"We thought all three deserved the death penalty," Mr. Deters said. "But we live in America and we have a jury system. It's not perfect, but it's the best we've got."

Unlike the defense attorneys, Mr. Deters said the only "injustice" is that Mrs. Khriss is free. He is not troubled that Mr. Issa is facing a death sentence.

"Just because there was injustice in one case doesn't mean there shouldn't be justice in the other," he said. "The system is not perfect.

"O.J. Simpson is playing golf today. Is that fair?"

Attorneys on both sides say the verdicts also were influenced by differences in the evidence presented at each trial.

Mrs. Khriss' case stands out from the others because no one could directly link her to the crime. According to prosecutors, she asked Mr. Issa to arrange the murders because she feared her husband was about to divorce her. They said Mr. Issa did the rest. But her jury didn't believe it and acquitted her of all charges.

The other two cases had more in common because many of the same witnesses testified that they saw Mr. Issa and Mr. Miles together in the hours leading up to the slayings. Mr. Miles later told police he committed the crime and said Mr. Issa paid him to do it.

Although both men were convicted of aggravated murder, only Mr. Issa's jury recommended a death sentence.

"I find that a surprising result," Ms. Agar said. "(Mr. Miles') confession was chilling."

In his statement to police, Mr. Miles admitted shooting the men as they tossed money on the ground and begged for their lives. His jurors, however, decided that mitigating factors -- such as his troubled childhood -- outweighed other factors.

Mr. Issa was not so fortunate. Common Pleas Judge David Davis will decide today whether to accept the jury's recommendation of death.

Ultimately, some attorneys say, the most important factor may be simply the personalities of jurors.

David Scacchetti, the attorney who defended Mrs. Khriss, said there's no way to know whether one potential juror is more inclined to recommend a death sentence.

And that, he said, calls into question whether it's reasonable to ask a jury to make such a decision.

"I don't know the solution," he said, "unless you just get rid of the death penalty."

Even if the process relies in part on luck of the draw, one juror in Mr. Issa's case, who asked to remain unnamed, said justice was done by his jury.

"Each jury has a job to do," he said. "Hopefully they do it the best they can."

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